It’s ground breaking visual effects making all the difference in your favourite movies and TV shows. They complement good stories and good acting with stunning visuals.
So what does it take to be a talented visual effects artist in Hollywood North? We chatted with accomplished VFX artist Adam Stern, founder of award-winning Artifex Studios in Vancouver to get some insight.
His studio has worked on over 60 feature film and television series projects, including an Emmy nomination on FOX’s Almost Human which was filmed locally around Vancouver. As a visual creator and story teller, Adam Stern also writes and directs, having finished his second short film FTL. It’s about a lone astronaut testing a spacecraft that is truly faster than light-speed:
What got you into visual effects?
My entry into visual effects and film/TV in general came in a roundabout way. Before moving out to Vancouver from Halifax I spent years training as a pianist, first classically and then at Berklee College of Music. In Vancouver I worked for a while as a keyboard player and producer for various bands, and was involved with a number of recording projects.
I love music, but wasn’t making headway in the industry (and I was flat broke). I reached a point
where I decided I needed to try something new.
While at school I fell in love with what was possible visually on the computer, using early versions of video and 3D animation software. I was looking for ways to combine my love of film, music, and graphics/animation – and had a great time putting these elements together.
I worked for a while producing video for local companies and then decided to start Artifex. Some of my first jobs at Artifex were for X-Files, The New Addams Family, and graphics work for a number of feature films.
What was the thought process in founding your own VFX studio?
I’m extremely passionate about storytelling, and thought that starting a studio could be a great way to pursue being part of the process. VFX was a big part of that decision, but early iterations of Artifex also had audio/recording setups and a small green screen/sound stage. I wanted to do everything.
My intent was to simply create a place where I could work, and possibly hire a few additional artists. What hadn’t occurred to me at the time was that I was going to need to spend most of my time running and building the business! We started as two people, with myself as the only one creating the work. We’re now close to forty and I am almost purely supervisory.
As an accomplished VFX artist with an award winning studio, have you accomplished all your goals?
That would be an emphatic no! Artifex has done some amazing work over the years, with more to come. VFX is a uniquely challenging field that combines art and technology in amazing ways. But for me there’s lots more to do – not only in VFX, but getting back to the roots of why I started Artifex in the first place. I’m a storyteller at heart.
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Is there a difference in doing VFX on a locally-filmed project compared to one filmed elsewhere?
In my experience not really… other than the level of involvement we might have during production. We recently created VFX for a large show that was shot in South Africa, while concurrently working on a series that shoots in Vancouver. Because we deliver our work entirely digitally, and a lot of our review sessions with directors happen online, we’d be hard-pressed to
tell the difference. Of course if we’re involved during production (ie. we have myself or someone from Artifex on set as a VFX Supervisor), there can be a big difference as we’ll have a more direct relationship with the director and/or showrunner.
What is your favourite Vancouver-based television or film production you’ve worked on?
I would have to say Continuum. It’s a great example of a locally-filmed show where we were able to be involved throughout the process. We had a tremendous opportunity to work closely with everyone involved, which made for fulfilling, creative work.
When did you add writing/directing to your repertoire?
I have been writing for years, and had always thought about developing my own projects. I started directing a number of years ago, with my first short in 2009 (which will never see the light of day!), followed by The Adept in 2015 and now FTL. I have also had experience directing units for VFX sequences on some of the shows Artifex has been part of.
Why does your new short film FTL stand apart from other sci-fi shorts?
I think FTL is a cool short that can be viewed as a standalone piece, but also serves as the beginning of a larger, fascinating story. There are some great sci-fi shorts out there, but I hope FTL stands out as not just sci-fi, but a story with characters that resonate.
I wanted to give Artifex the opportunity to visually show its stuff. There are close to 130 feature-quality VFX shots in FTL, which we spent several months creating and refining. FTL gave the Artifex team the opportunity to be extremely creative, and the end result shows a different style of work for us, while giving everyone at the studio something to be quite proud of.
As a VFX-savvy director, I was able to shoot FTL in a way that allowed Artifex to push things pretty far in post. I knew what would work on set, and what wouldn’t. Of course there are a lot of professionally-done shorts out there, and I hope we stand out as one of them. We talked a lot about FTL being a “mini-feature”, and shot it as such – with an amazing cast and pro crew that I’ve worked with on a number of projects.
Advice for aspiring VFX artists?
If you have the opportunity to go to school, take it. You’ll learn the art and craft, but more importantly you’ll meet lots of people and make connections that will be important to you in your journey – both personally and professionally.
That being said, you can certainly learn independently, and the learning never stops. Research new techniques via the internet, and always check out what other artists are doing. I’m blown away almost every day by what’s out there. Be aware of the bigger picture, the story your VFX work fits into. Stay passionate and push yourself constantly with personal projects. Study
photography, traditional art skills, and watch lots of films!
Interview by Amar Mirchandani @amarmirch
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